Ellis County’s 180 employees won’t get a pay hike in January as originally planned for in the county’s 2020 budget.

Instead, county employees through their wage and benefit committee asked the Ellis County Commission to hold off until July in return for a hoped-for 2% pay raise at that time.

Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin, speaking for the committee, made the proposal Tuesday during a county commission work session on the county’s pay plan.

“We understand that the budget is tight,” Harbin told the county commission. “We would like the opportunity to look at ways to save the county money in the future.”

Harbin specifically mentioned the county’s health insurance plan, which expires at the end of 2020.

Besides Harbin, many deputies from his department as well as other county department heads attended the meeting Tuesday in the Schenk building at the Ellis County Fairgrounds.

The hourslong session took a deep dive into many pay issues facing the county and department heads.

Those ranged from the investment lost with training new employees who then leave for better paying jobs, to keeping the county pay scale competitive when labor is in short supply, whittling what some say is the county’s generous benefit package, whether employees would rather have good benefits or more pay, and possibly paying cash to employees who decline the county’s health insurance benefit.

Faced with expenses far outpacing revenues, the county commissioners already this year have clawed back for 2020 some of the health insurance benefit, upping the employee contribution from 7.5% to 11% starting in December.

The commissioners previously approved for 2020 about $143,000 for a January pay raise, stipulating the hike would equal the federal Social Security cost of living adjustment, up to 2%.

While the commissioners on Tuesday didn’t commit to the wage and benefit committee’s proposal, they did say they’d hold off on the January raise, and hold off further conversation on raises and benefits until May. That’s when they’ll know whether voters have approved or voted down the questions of a half-cent in sales taxes that will be put to them in a spring mail-in ballot election.

“I think we’ll get a better look at this situation, after we count votes,” said County Commissioner Dustin Roths.

Harbin’s proposal from the wage and benefit committee referenced the health insurance premium hike, as well as a county pay schedule, referred to as the Evergreen Study. Intended to bring salaries in line with the going rate in the market, the Evergreen Study was put into action starting in 2016, but stalled before it was fully implemented.

“The committee proposes to finish out the pay study for the one- to five-year employees, including a 2% increase to the pay scale,” said Harbin. He added, “with this group of employees, Ellis County has put the time and funding into training them, however they may not be totally vested to Ellis County yet and may be easily lured away if we don’t continue to keep our pay competitive.”

By delaying a full 2% pay bump by six months, starting it mid-year 2020 instead of in January, Harbin said, the county will save about $137,000, which is about $6,000 shy of the $143,000 budgeted for pay increases.

Harbin said the committee would also like to help the county find a money-saving alternative to the current health insurance plan, which expires at the end of 2020.

Following lengthy discussion, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said “what I’m hearing here is that there are a lot of ideas that the commission is very open to that the wage and benefit committee would take this on as a project.”

County Commission chair Dean Haselhorst asked the department heads to bring back ideas in May on pay package and insurance benefit options when it comes up for discussion again.

During the discussion, Smith-Hanes said there are many different ways the county could save money on health insurance.

Roths mentioned, as he has previously, his concern about what he describes as an overly generous health insurance benefit.

“I think we even incentivize them probably to take the most expensive plan, because it’s obviously the best coverage and the least possibility of them taking a huge hit in terms of financially when they have a health problem,” Roths said. “But also we incentivize them to bring their spouse and their children to the plan.”

Health Services director Kerry McCue cautioned that the health care benefit is a big part of the pay package, specifically mentioning EMS, Harbin’s deputies, and Road and Bridge, where Public Works director Bill Ring has struggled to fill vacancies.

“I want us to remember that Bill can have as many road graders, Ed can have as many patrol cars, and I can have as many ambulances as we want,” McCue said. “If we don’t have the staff to put in them, we can’t do our jobs. Our staff, the people who work for us, are the most important asset we have.” 

McCue said when county employees were unionized until recently, the union took smaller raises in exchange for a better health care benefit.

He said the county’s pay scale, even with the Evergreen Study, is behind the curve with private and public sector competitors.

“In our department it’s a year onloading, not to mention the uniforms and all that. It’s expensive to bring new employees on,” McCue said. “Please remember that that is a vital percentage of the package and we need to remain competitive.”

Despite a full 2% pay raise, with steeper premiums for health insurance, employees will be losing money, he said.

“This is a really important discussion amongst employees and it’s something we need to look at very hard,” McCue said. “You’re not going to see the folks like myself that have been here for long periods of time in this generation. You’re going to see people more mobile, and they’re going to go for a dollar more an hour. So you as a commission have to remember that over the next few years, because you’re going to see more and more of that.”

“I’ll put the question back to you, how you going to pay for all that?” asked Haselhorst. “Going to keep raising taxes?”

McCue said options can include fees for services, higher property taxes, and sales tax.

Roths suggested newer employees may not understand the extent of the health benefit.

“It’s got to be a little bit of our education,” he said, “We’re talking about serious, serious cash per month, like two grand per month per person, which is more than they’ve taken home in cash sometimes.”

County Commissioner Butch Schyler said he doesn’t disagree with what was said about county staff.

“I don’t care what we’ve done in the past, we have to go forward, and the issue confronting us is we have a tax lid,” Schlyer said. He added, also, that the county doesn’t know if voters will approve the sales tax.

“We have to look at what we can do going forward. We’re going to have to change models here,” Schlyer said. “You said we’re already behind the Evergreen Study. Maybe, maybe not, but we do have to try to set wages and benefits according to a community standard, not better than a community standard, but in accordance to a community standard. At the present time there aren’t too many places people can get better insurance than what we have in Ellis County.”